There are some things parents just can’t understand. Why is it suddenly cool to wear chokers and mom jeans? What is a TikTok? And why do the so-called “popular” kids actually seem kind of mean? That last question is eternal and puzzling to most everyone. It’s obvious that being popular is not the same as being liked, but why? The good news: Science understands what parents don’t. As it turns out, there are different versions of popularity, and they don’t all involve being liked.
In a new study, published just in time for social groups to form back at school, scientists from Florida Atlantic University and the University of Montréal determined what makes a kid popular and why. Researchers followed 568 middle-school kids for two years in a longitudinal study of popularity. They chose 288 girls and 280 boys who were 12 and a half years old on average at the start of the study.
Then, the scientists took a page out of the “Mean Girls” Burn Book by asking the teens to rank their peers. For science. Twice a year over seventh and eighth grade, the teens filled out a formal questionnaire that asked who was the most popular, who they most liked to spend time and do activities with, and who was the most rejected. The survey also asked who was the most physically aggressive and who told lies or spread false rumors. Who helped others when they had problems? Who was most likely to be kicked and pushed? Who got laughed at? Who got angry?
In the end, the scientists found that the teens formed three distinct categories of popularity, which they dubbed “prosocial popular,” “aggressive popular,” and “bistrategic popular” or “Machiavellian.”
The prosocial teens are the ones you’d want your kid to be. They gain popularity through cooperation and friendliness. Maybe these are the class presidents, the prom planners, the ones who want to get along and have fun with everyone. Happily, this was the most common type of popularity in the study, accounting for almost 20 percent of the teens.
Then, there are the aggressive popular teens who actually read more like bullies. They’re antagonistic and maintain their social standing through coercion and anger. These are the teens who will make up horrible nicknames for other kids that everyone laughs at — out of fear that if they don’t, they’ll be the next victims. The silver lining is that is was the least common type of popularity, accounting for just under 5 percent of the teens.
The third category of teen popularity is both the most behaviorally complicated and the most effective: bistrategic popularity. Yes, this is the “Mean Girls” variety of popular, which covered 12 percent of the teens. These teens use a two-pronged strategy for staying popular: They score high on aggression, but also on that prosocial, friendly behavior. Basically, they can be mean when they need to be and then make nice right after.
“Bistrategic adolescents are noteworthy not only for their very high levels of popularity, but also for the way that they balance getting their way with getting along,” said Brett Laursen, Ph.D., a co-author and psychology professor, in a press release. He added, “These youth are truly Machiavellian, maintaining their popularity by off-setting the coercive behavior required to maintain power with carefully calibrated acts of kindness.”
With the popularity questionnaires, the teens had also filled out measures of loneliness and depression, which the scientists combined with their scores on things like anger, disruptiveness, and victimization to tease out how well-adjusted the individuals in each popularity type were. As you can probably guess, the prosocial teens were both well-liked and emotionally well-adjusted. The bullying-popular teens were often neither.
As for the bistrategic-popular teens, the scientists say they could be either well-adjusted or the opposite, depending on context. “Their well-adjusted social and emotional profile coupled with a moderate propensity for social dominance and rule breaking may prove good or bad depending on the environment,” said Amy C. Hartl, Ph.D., the senior author on this study, “thus providing hope for positive long-term adjustment and concern for the same.”
When you consider the dictionary definition of “popular” is “liked or admired by many people,” and yet teens are bullied by the “popular” kids all the time, it makes sense that parents would be left scratching their heads. But as this study shows, teen popularity goes far beyond dictionary definitions — it often includes a helping of fear, with admiration considered optional. Still, it doesn’t have to be this way. If we all took inspiration from the most prosocial popular kids — or adults — among us, high school and the world at large would be a better place. Now, time to join the cool kids.
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